By Daniel J. Vance
Recently I corresponded with Miss America 1995 Heather Whitestone McCallum, the first Miss America with a disability.
Diagnosed "profoundly deaf" as a toddler, Heather in 2001 received a cochlear implant at age 29. This remarkable technology moves sound from a microphone in the ear to a speech processor, and digitizes, transmits and converts the sound into electrical signals stimulating nerve fibers. The brain recognizes the signals as sound.
Heather wrote via email, "My cochlear implant helped me hear high frequencies very well, so I started hearing sounds I never heard with a hearing aid. At first, it was frustrating because for 29 years I had developed my speech and language skills without hearing any high frequencies. [Having the implant at first] was like being in a different country and hearing people talk but not understanding their language."
She said sounds from a cochlear implant and hearing aid differ significantly.
"People ask me what new sounds I hear," she said. "Some I have a hard time describing. For instance, I was hearing a new sound after the implant and kept asking people what it was. They said it was the sound of people talking. But I knew what that sounded like because I can read lips, and the sound I heard didn't match their lips. This sound was driving me crazy the third month after the implant. Finally, I was in a car with my husband and boys. When hearing the sound again I immediately asked my husband about it. It was my son's sniffling, he said. I couldn't believe how emotional I'd been over this new sound."
Heather now has a deep appreciation for both hearing aid and cochlear implant. She wears a hearing aid in her left ear and has a cochlear implant in her right. Though the devices don't completely overcome her deafness, they do "give me the chance to understand people's speech better," she said. "I still don't hear everything, but it's better than not hearing at all. I still think it was worth it going through this frustrating process in order to hear more and to read lips less often."
She said many deaf people have been supportive of her cochlear implant, including Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin. Heather said that more than anything she wanted a cochlear implant so she could hear the voices of her two young boys.